Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Enough already! Just play Willie Harris in RF
Mike Rizzo may be content with the right field rotation, but I'm not.
To date, six men have played right field for the Washington Nationals, all of them deficient in their own way. Cristian Guzman in right field is a gimmick. Mike Morse can hit but can't field. No one in his right mind would think of Willy Taveras as anything but a 5th outfielder or a late-innings defensive replacement. Justin Maxwell and Roger Bernadina are AAAA players (at best) who don't hit well enough for their above-average defense to make them viable options. And then there's Willie Harris.
Barring bringing in a right fielder via trade, Willie Harris is the least worst option. No one is going to mistake Harris for Ichiro in right field, but he should be good enough with the bat and in the field that playing him on a regular basis minimizes the damage the current right field rotation is doing to the team. While it may be relatively well-settled that Harris has been a better fielder in left and center than he has been in right, that may be due as much to lack of opportunity and experience as to any inherent deficiencies. And it's not really Harris' fault if he has to get comfortable playing right field during the regular season because certain personnel decisions were made seemingly without thinking through all of the possible ramifications, is it?
What do the numbers say?
Just looking at basic slash stats, at .261/.340/.464, the average National League right fielder is doing pretty well at the plate so far in 2010, even with the Nats doing their best to drag those numbers down. Nats right fielders are hitting .159/.276/.327. The Nats have the third-worst RF OPS in the NL. The fourth-worst team, the Mets, have a RF OPS 104 points higher than the Nats. Right field is a premium offensive position in the NL, and even playing Harris every day isn't going to do much to bring the Nats above the median OPS. What about defense?
Defensively, the Nats right fielders have the third-best UZR/150 in the NL, so at least something is going well. Looking at the fielders individually, an argument could be made that Maxwell is a better defensive option than Harris, but since Maxwell is back in AAA still trying to learn how to hit (again), that argument can be set aside until Rizzo decides it's time to give Maxwell a seventh or eighth chance. What does matter is that UZR says Harris is a better defensive option than Bernadina or Taveras. (Sample size warning applies.)
OK, Harris is good at catching the ball, but he's also hitting a lowly .189/.302/.434. Still, that's better than what Bernadina, Taveras, or Maxwell have hit so far. And the rest of Harris' season should improve. ZIPS predicts Harris will hit .243/.343./.400 the rest of the season. In addition, Harris has a BABIP in 2010 of .189, compared to a career average of .287. Even with his dismal offense, add in the defense and Harris has still managed to post a positive WAR.
Willie Harris: below-average positional offense + above-average positional defense = not terrible, and a hell of a lot better than the rotation or platoon or whatever you want to call it the Nats have been running out there every day.
Are there any downsides to making Willie Harris the everyday right fielder? The most obvious problem with giving Harris the starting job is that it takes away Riggleman's defensive flexibility in the late innings of close games. Harris is the usual substitute for Willingham in left field in these situations, and he's been an effective substitute (the Mets must hate him). The best hope is that Taveras, who has decent career defensive numbers in center field, will turn out to be at least as good in left. Making Harris an everyday player also limits Riggleman's ability to use pinch-runners and make double-switches.
Maybe none of that will matter because playing Harris every day will result in fewer close games? Well, it's just a thought.
Update: Well, how about that.